“How terrible their handwriting is”

Keyboarding, texting and twittering are hastening the decline of penmanship and cursive writing. Do we care? A story in Monday’s Boston Globe highlights a new book, Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, set to appear in bookstores this Friday, which is National Handwriting Day and — could it be otherwise? — John Hancock’s Birthday). Kitty Florey, the book’s author, is less worried about “educational damage” than a broken line of communication with the past:

Today we can see Mark Twain’s or Charles Dickens’s manuscripts or letters, [Florey] said, the marks they made with their own hands. “You can see where they dipped the pen, and the little drips of ink,” she said. “My great-great grandchild may have my mother’s letters to me; they will be nice artifacts, but she might not be able to read them.”

In our Teacher Leaders Network Forum, we’ve had several interesting conversations about the decline of students’ handwriting skills. Some of that chat was compiled for this October 2006 post, “The Pros and Cons of Cursive,” at our TLN Teacher Voices blog.  The post drew interesting comments from many educators, including this from a middle grades teacher:

I teach 6th and 7th grade language arts and I require my students to write in cursive. I reteach it at the beginning of the year, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when the quality of the work produced goes up when I require students to write in cursive. It makes them more aware of presentation and helps improve fine motor skills. I am always appalled by how terrible their handwriting is at the beginning of the year, most of which is done in print.

Teacher-author Rick Wormeli, who was part of our cursive conversation in the TLN Forum discussion group, echoed Kitty Florey’s observations when he wrote:

A year after my grandfather died, I wore a coat of his that my grandmother passed along to me. He was a wise and compassionate man, and I missed him terribly. I put my hand into one of the coat’s pockets and felt something. It was a note he had written in cursive. My grandfather had touched this paper and formed these letters. As silly as it may sound, I felt like he was there, and I was connecting to him.

Wormeli also looked forward, into a future that could have a Writing Gap. “There are a number of us who are over 30 who will be around for another 50 years or so. It would be nice for the next generation to be able to read and communicate with us via cursive handwriting while we’re here, on the occasions that we use it.”

Image: The earliest surviving holograph letter from Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) dated New York City, 8 October 1853. He wrote to his sister:  “I have been fooling myself with the idea that I was going to leave New York, every day for the last two weeks. I have taken a liking to the abominable place.” (Bancroft Library, UC-Berkeley)

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